Calhoun has made a habit lately of finishing games strong, combining to outscore their opponents in the first two rounds of the Class AA State Tournament, 42-18.
On Thursday in their Class AA Elite Eight matchup against Coosa, they once again controlled the final period, and the result was their first trip to the Final Four since 2002.
After the game was tied 44-44 at the end of the third quarter, the Jackets started the fourth on a 12-2 run to create some separation from the Eagles and held steady from there for a 67-59 victory at home.
The win moves Calhoun (25-2) into the Class AA State semifinals where they will play Vidalia on Saturday at Columbus State at 8:15 p.m.
Calhoun coach Vince Layson said he’s gotten used to seeing his team come on strong late in games over the past couple months.
“Our guys have done that all season long,” said Layson. “We know we’re never out of ballgame. I told them going into that last quarter that it was an eight-minute ballgame, and that (Coosa) had made their run for the first three quarters and it was our turn. They took that to heart, stepped out on the floor and made the biggest run of their career.”
After Calhoun pushed their lead to 56-46 with the run to start the fourth, Coosa (21-10) tried to remain within arm’s length, but every time they would hit a shot, the Jackets would answer. The Eagles would get no closer than eight for the rest of the game.
The fourth quarter didn’t shadow the other three as they contest, which was the fifth between the teams this season, was highly competitive throughout. Calhoun led 19-15 after the first quarter, Coosa rallied to take a 32-31 lead at the break, and then the teams battled to a 44-44 tie at the end of the third.
Layson said despite Calhoun beating Coosa the previous four times they’ve played this season, he expected the Eagles to be an extremely tough test on the Elite Eight stage.
“Credit to Coosa, they’ve been playing some great basketball as of late,” said Layson. “We knew coming in, they were going to be a very tough opponent. Nobody gets to this point just by luck.
“It was tight at first. I thought there was a little bit of nerves on our part. Coosa came out loose and focused, and it took us a little while to find our rhythm. Once we found it, it was nice.”
Calhoun was led by Chandler Curtis with 20 points, including four 3-pointers. All five starters for the Jackets had solid nights as they played the entire second half with no substitutions.
Austin Byrd added 15 for the Jackets, including eight in the fourth quarter. Keyth Fightmaster scored 12, and Kaelen Riley had 11.
Tavaris Wilson had a huge first half for Coosa, hitting six 3s and finishing with 20 points before the break. But Calhoun made it extremely tough on him in the second half, as they limited him to just six, with none coming from behind the arc. Wilson got a look at the end of the third from 3 and watched the shot go down, but the officials ruled that he released it after the buzzer had already sounded. It would’ve given Coosa a 3-point lead going to the fourth if it had counted.
“(Wilson) made like six 3’s in the first half so as a team, we locked down on defense (after that),” said Calhoun’s Jireh Wilson, who finished with nine points of his own in the win. “I felt like I had to step up.
“That really did (make a difference),” added Jireh Wilson about the 3-pointer that wasn’t at the end of the third. “If he knocked that down, that makes things tighter going into the fourth.”
Korley Grier also stepped up for Coosa, scoring 17 in the loss. The Jackets limited the Eagles’ post presence Isaac Bradley to just two points, and got him in foul trouble before Bradley finally fouled out early in the fourth quarter.
Layson said that Bradley fouling out made a big impact in the game as it allowed Fightmaster and Byrd to have more success in the paint.
“We feel like Bradley is the leader on their team and definitely a presence down low,” said Layson. “He’s a very heady player and an emotional player. We knew when he picked up his fourth and he stayed in the ball game that we had to go back at him again. And getting him out that early was big. As soon as he came out it was a different ballgame.”
The Jackets, who have now won 11 in a row dating back to Jan. 14 at Model, will now try to keep the momentum going in Columbus on Saturday. Layson said he expected his team to be in this position and what happens from here on out is impossible to predict.
“This is Calhoun’s third trip to the Final Four after going in 2001 and 2002,” said Layson. “Calhoun’s got some great basketball history, and it’s good seeing us back where we used to be.”
“I told the guys from Day 1 that they were a Final Four caliber team and anything less would be a disappointment. From here on out, you’re here for a reason. Bad teams don’t make it to the Final Four. Next game and the next two games, anything can happen. I feel like we can play with anybody we see. We’re versatile enough on defense to adjust to any kind of offense we see. It’s going to boil down to just making the plays.”
Calhoun boys 67, Coosa 59
Grier 17, Faust 1, Bradley 2, Carter 5, Bell 6, Wilson 26, Lamboy 2.
Riley 11, Wilson 9, Curtis 20, Byrd 15, Fightmaster 12.
Coosa 15 17 12 15 — 59
Calhoun 19 12 13 23 — 67
3-Pointers — Coosa 10 (Wilson 6, Grier 3, Carter 1); Calhoun 5 (Curtis 4, Wilson 1). Free throws — Coosa 7-10; Calhoun 14-25. Records — Calhoun 25-2.